Ask the Critic: Any Advice for a Fellow Critic?
Editor's note: Here to answer your questions is senior managing editor, former SENY editor, and frequent author of our NYC restaurant reviews Carey Jones. We'll take a few of your questions each week and give you the New York restaurant advice you're looking for. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question!
Any Advice for a Fellow Critic?
I'm a restaurant critic for a newspaper in a mid-size Midwestern city. I base my standards for reviews off what I've gleaned from larger papers: I visit two or three times anonymously after a restaurant has been open for at least a month. I order a wide variety of proteins from a cross-section of the menu, and I call to double check ingredients, preparations and prices. Are there other suggestions you have for how best to review restaurants in smaller markets? Also, are there things you wish readers knew about reviewing?
It's good to hear from a like-minded fellow traveler; you'd be surprised by the number of publications that don't abide by the above. So props for striving to emulate the experience of a "normal" customer; and props for fact-checking.
But let's get beyond those basics, here. In my mind, the most important obligation of a reviewer is to be thoughtful. To consider various situations from the diner's perspective and from the kitchen's. To look beyond the obvious and test your own impressions. A normal diner might go to a restaurant, form an opinion—I loved it and I'm returning next week, I had an awful experience and I'm never going back—and not really have to look closely at those gut reactions. A reviewer's duty is to go deeper.
For instance, I'm currently in the middle of a review concerning a new Manhattan restaurant that's gotten very favorable early press, and whose kitchen is run by a chef I hold in high regard. Everything I ate on a first visit was superlative, across a wide range of the menu, from fish to pasta to house-baked bread. And yet it wasn't a particularly comfortable experience. The servers stopped by our table every few minutes. They spoke slowly in a sort of stilted, trying-to-be-formal way that I found incredibly off-putting. They hovered to an extent that my friend and I occasionally fell out of conversation because she didn't particularly want her romantic misadventures overheard.
As we left the restaurant, she commented, "That was delicious, but I don't think I'd go back." But my thoughts were the opposite. I'd been given a 6 p.m. reservation on a Tuesday; if I returned at, say, 9 p.m. on a Friday, would the natural upswing in restaurant energy eliminate some of that awkwardness? Did I somehow get the three staff members who were all off their game? What if I sat at the bar? What if it was just an anomaly? It's my job to look at my first impressions, then test them as best I can.
It's also important to consider a restaurant in its proper context. In some ways, I'd think working in a smaller city, with a more limited restaurant pool than New York could make you that much more authoritative as a critic. No matter how many Thai restaurants I try in the five boroughs, there's always another I haven't, and it'd be hard to call one The Best in good conscience. Ditto sandwich shops, Sichuan spots, what have you. But if there are seven local pizzerias and I've eaten at them all? It might be possible to write something definitive about the state of pizza in that city.
But no matter how big or small your town is, it's your task to fit it within the larger dining landscape. If I'm reviewing a Thai restaurant in Elmhurst, it's incumbent upon me to know something about the competition. It's not enough to write impressions of individual dishes; how does it compare to the place next door? How similar are they, and how successful in what they serve? Is this restaurant good for the neighborhood, good for any neighborhood, good for particular things but not others? The same restaurant might play very differently in one city than another. A Vietnamese restaurant we'd be lucky to have in Manhattan might not even crack the top 10 in Houston or San Jose.
All that to say: Always be thoughtful, always be thorough. Your job is not to record your own unedited thoughts ("I don't usually like mushrooms on my pizza but this was delicious!") or unexamined reactions ("The service seemed off," full stop.) Your job is to think more deeply about restaurants than everyone else around you, to inform yourself as much as possible, and to strive for objectivity whenever possible.
It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.
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